Here’s to Holiday Conversations that Matter

Holly_000018403234XSmallThis is the time of year when most of us slow down, gather with friends and family, focus on the blessings in our lives, decorate our homes, and celebrate life lessons emanating from whichever deity we worship.

It can be a wonderful time, but it can also be incredibly stressful as we all too often find ourselves engaged in heated, frustrating conversations about important personal and professional issues that all too often divide us instead of uniting us.

This year, 2015, makes celebration especially difficult. Just about every country around the world has suffered through far too many natural disasters and acts of willful violence, to say nothing of fear-mongering and callous refusals (at least here in the United States) to accept and protect the victims of violence who seek refuge.

But I believe the difficulty we seem to have engaging in respectful conversations about important issues is an even deeper tragedy.

I want to offer here just two simple ideas that will make it easier for you to have conversations about ideas that matter– especially conversations with people whose views are dramatically different from your own.

First, follow a practice I was reminded of when I attended a recent session of the Speakers Academy program that our northern California chapter of the National Speakers Association conducts each year. This session was taught by Sue Walden of ImprovWorks!, an outstanding instructor whose expertise includes applying improvisational theater techniques to the world of business.

Sue taught us how to do a “voice mirror.” That means essentially restating the exact words you hear someone else saying, as close to the time the original speaker says them as you can. We actually did that out loud at first as a way to learn the technique, but then Susan showed us how to “speak” the words silently, in our minds, as we heard them.

This technique forces you to listen very carefully, and to concentrate on the other speaker, not on what the words mean to you, or how you are going to respond. It puts you in a pure listening mode, without time to do anything but accept what you are hearing (remember: accepting doesn’t mean agreeing; it just means hearing and understanding).

Voice mirroring drives you to concentrate fully on what you are hearing, which is of course the first step to conducting any meaningful conversation. If you can signal to other participants that you understand what they are saying, you’re already off to a better start than 98% of the conversations in the world.

The next step is to respond to the speaker by restating what he or she has just said, before you either agree or disagree. As you may know, the most fundamental principle in Improv is to respond to whatever you hear with “Yes, and….”

Getting into the habit of affirming the other person and their ideas is the first step towards consistently constructive conversations.

Once you understand the other person’s point of view, then you can begin attempting to interpret it, and to sort out the emotions that are attached to it.

For that process, I recommend a very simple model that I’ve mentioned here before: the Assumptions/Perceptions/Feelings model, or APF.

I first came across this deceptively simple three-part model for understanding someone’s personal frame of reference when I was teaching at Harvard Business School over 25 years ago.

Simply stated, our emotions, or Feelings, result from the interaction of our Assumptions and our Perceptions – the interplay between the way we believe things should be (Assumptions), and the way they are (our Perceptions of reality).

As my Harvard colleagues Tony Athos and Jack Gabarro described it in their book Interpersonal Behavior: Communication and Understanding in Relationships:

…assumptions include all the beliefs, values, and attitudes that a person holds about how things are and how they ought to be….Assumptions are the …values that we incorporate into our conceptions of the world and into our conceptions of ourselves so that they become part of us. (p. 145)

Perceptions then are what we see or hear as actually taking place in our present world – or at least what we think we are seeing or hearing:

APFAthos and Gabarro observed that most personal and interpersonal problems come about when someone’s (or two or more someone’s) important assumptions are being challenged or contradicted by what they are currently hearing, seeing, or experiencing. It’s the gap between “what should be” and “what is” that drives our emotions.

So when you are in a conversation that include strong emotions of any kind (positive or negative), first identify the emotions that the other person is expressing, and then ask what mix of Assumptions and Perceptions must be creating those Feelings. That inquiry can guide your identification of the underlying, and typically unexpressed, assumptions that are the basis for someone’s world view.

And that’s the most important part of having a meaningful conversation that matters – to both you and the other participants.

Who knows, your holiday conversations might end up being a whole lot more fun, and a whole lot less stressful, if you can master voice mirroring and then apply the APF model to what you hear being said.

And with that, I’m going to take a personal holiday vacation for the next two weeks; I’ll be back in January. In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday, and look for every opportunity to talk with (not at) your friends and family about issues, ideas, and qestions that matter.

Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can make all your meetings and conversations matter. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.


2 replies
  1. Bary Sherman
    Bary Sherman says:

    Well said Jim.

    Thank you for sharing these two important points for how to understand and be understood.

    Our Best Wishes to you and yours for Happy Holidays and a Terrific 2016.


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